Union responses to the digitalean transformation at the workplace: the case of the automotive sector in Italy

Type de publication:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Detroit (2022)


collective bargaining, digitalisation, Italy, Technological Innovation, trade unions


The Italian automotive sector has been hit by a new wave of technological and organisational innovation linked to the so-called Industry 4.0, manifested into processes of digitalisation, interconnection and collaborative automation aimed at reinforcing the lean logic of production systems. As a result, bargaining over technology has become an important and crucial area of negotiation for trade unions, after having been dismissed for a long time for historical reasons. This paper explores precisely the role played by FIOM (Italian metalworker TU part of the CGIL confederation) representatives at workplace level in managing/resisting/hindering the introduction and implementation of these technologies.

The Italian system of industrial relations has historically lacked an adequate set of regulations and bargaining concerning the introduction and implementation of technological and organisational innovations. The Italian system of industrial relations has historically lacked of a proper set of regulation and bargaining concerning the introduction and implementation of technological and organisational innovations. On the production side, two factors might explain this vacuum. First, a delay in the Italian productive structure when it comes to the degree of adoption of information and communication technology with respect to other European countries, which indirectly favoured a lack of contractual regulation. Second, the incremental nature of technological adoption, meant to face contingent operational problems rather than to promote radical technological upgrading or state-led industrial policies.

During the 1970s, trade unions managed to partially reverse this trend, negotiating new forms of work organisation and obtaining rights to information on company plans or changes in the production process, thus making it possible to externally influence management decisions. However, the change in the balance of power between capital and labour since the 1980s has strengthened managerial prerogatives over technical and organisational issues. In the so-called post-Fordist era, lean organisational models were applied unilaterally by management and union representatives were only asked to uncritically adhere to the company's restructuring programmes. At the same time, in some sectors and in some specific local contexts, trade unions have been able to preserve and continue to assert, at least in part, some of the prerogatives won in the 1970s, especially as regards their negotiating role in work organisation.

Levering on the results of two field-work analyses conducted under a collaboration with the Sabattini Foundation and the metalworker trade union FIOM in the period 2016-2018, we are able to analyse the action and role played by FIOM representatives within a set of factories marked by processes of technological and organisational transformation, ranging from the pivotal adopters of I4.0 technologies located in one of the most technologically advanced areas of the Italian automotive sector, the Emilia-Romagna region, to the factories of the former FCA-CNH group, now Stellantis, located throughout the country. Additionally, the authors' recent involvement in the group of researchers supporting the workers of the (former) GKN factory in Florence allows us to include in the analysis a unique example of workers' ability to self-organise in the workplace and build pro-union power relations.

Our results reveal how, even within the very same trade union and the same sector of activity, the ability of union representatives to act on the introduction and implementation of new technologies and their consequences for working conditions tends to vary according to structural and contextual factors: the workplace power relations system, the degree of awareness of the techno-organisational transformations taking place, and finally the local-regional trade union tradition. We foresee three forms of actions and reactions towards/against the challenges posed by technological innovation: the emergence of forms of corporatism, resistance to digitalisation but also the possible advent of new forms of workplace industrial democracy.


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